Milwaukee is not the most glamorous place to begin a cruise. It’s an unpretentious, mid-size, blue-collar city lying on the west bank of Lake Michigan, some 100 miles north of Chicago.
But as a jumping-off point to explore North America’s Great Lakes, it’s just about perfect.
The night before our voyage my wife and I have a raucous night out in the ‘historic’ Third Ward district (it goes all the way back to the 1850s). We eat excellent fish and chips at the Oyster Bar and sample the product which, according to a memorable slogan and the Jerry Lee Lewis song, ‘made Milwaukee famous’ — beer.
Our ship, the Viking Octantis, is waiting for us next morning at the city’s airport. This once-bustling hub serving America’s Rust Belt is now a slightly lonely place surrounded by freeways and the huge mounds of salt that keep the roads open in the harsh Lakes winter.
On the water: From Milwaukee, Mark Jones and his wife set off on a cruise around the Great Lakes, travelling north to Mackinac, where the tips of lakes Michigan and Huron merge. Above is Mackinac Island on Lake Huron
‘The night before our voyage my wife and I have a raucous night out in the “historic” Third Ward district (it goes all the way back to the 1850s) in Milwaukee,’ writes Mark
It was quite a lot colder 14,000 years ago. Then, the ice sheets of Hudson Bay melted and coursed down through what is now Ontario and into the north-eastern U.S. states. As the meltwater retreated, it left the Great Lakes: five huge splodges on the map filled with 5,439 cubic miles of freshwater, which is 21 per cent of the Earth’s total. The biggest splodge, Superior, is the most northerly.
Two long splodges, Michigan and Huron, flow to Chicago and Detroit. The minor splodges of Ontario and Erie mark the southern boundary — huge bodies of water in themselves but dwarfed by Superior which, with a surface area of more than 30,000 square miles, is the world’s largest body of freshwater.
Our voyage takes us north to Mackinac, where the tips of lakes Michigan and Huron merge. Following an afternoon on that historic island made rich by fur trading and tourism, and the site of a major British victory in the almost-forgotten 1812 war with America, we head east overnight along Huron.
Mark says that Milwaukee, pictured, is a ‘perfect’ jumping-off point to explore North America’s Great Lakes
Mark travels on Viking Octantis, a vessel that has been designed to slip through the narrow channels and locks
Mark describes the Great Lakes as ‘five huge splodges on the map filled with 5,439 cubic miles of freshwater’
There, we drop anchor (although actual anchors on these modern ships are purely for show) and begin to enjoy off-boat and onshore activities: canoeing, hiking and guided tours by the Octantis experts.
Then it is back west and north through the Soo Locks into the mysteries of Superior itself.
In all, we spend eight days and seven nights on board before reaching Thunder Bay, a workmanlike Canadian city that makes Milwaukee look like Monte Carlo.
The experience could not be more different from those cruises where you hop off and on at one famous port stop after another. If you want shows, shopping and sites, this isn’t for you. Apart from Mackinac, our only land experiences are lunches at two wilderness lodges and the old copper mining settlement of Silver Islet.
It’s about soaking up a landscape that’s newly carved (by those Ice Age glaciers) and dizzyingly old (the Canadian Shield rocks date back more than four billion years in places).
And it’s about using some of the most advanced oceanographic technology around to explore the secrets of the Lakes. Because, for all their importance to the ecology of the world, there’s a lot we don’t know about these majestic, fragile places.
Horse-drawn carriages on Mackinac Island. Mark reveals: ‘Apart from Mackinac, our only land experiences are lunches at two wilderness lodges and the old copper mining settlement of Silver Islet’
After eight days on board, Mark’s cruise reaches the ‘workmanlike’ Canadian city of Thunder Bay, pictured
Looking out over Killarney in Ontario, which lies on Lake Huron (file photo)
The upmarket Norwegian line Viking decided to take the Great Lakes plunge when looking for a destination where its Antarctic exploration ships could spend the northern summer months. The Lakes are not a major destination for cruises: we didn’t see anything bigger than a fishing boat.
The Octantis, launched early in 2022, is not huge by the standards of modern liners: 665ft long, six decks, 189 staterooms. It has been designed to slip through the narrow channels and locks, as well as combat the polar icefields. It’s luxurious but in a Nordic way. Nothing show-offy.
To reach our cabin, we pass through the Explorer’s lounge: part bar, part lounge, part library, part gallery. Our ‘stateroom’ has blonde wood, cream leather sofas, woollen throws and a floor-to-ceiling panoramic window. Most of the voyage, the same scene passes by like one of those ‘slow TV’ programmes: gently rippling, deep blue water, a horizon of low wooded hills bounded by ancient rocks.
There are lots of hidden wardrobes and cupboards. Not that you will need them. The passengers, mainly over 60, a large majority North American and all well-off, are past caring about impressing fellow guests with posh togs, whether in the all-day World Cafe or two fine-dining restaurants.
The Viking Octantis ship passing through the Welland Canal in Ontario
The expedition ship sailed ‘into the mysteries’ of Lake Superior. Above is the Sibley Peninsula jutting into the lake
My wife and I make an effort for the captain’s table dinner (an Indian feast). I’m the only one wearing a jacket and Annabel’s are the only high heels on show. Later, we meet a couple of semi-retired chaps from San Diego who use a part of their tech industry fortunes to take a couple of Viking cruises a year. They tell us they love the discreet vibe, the absence of forced jollity, the terrific (and all-included) food and drink — and, they frankly admit, the no-children rule.
We see our new friends every day as they take a walk around the observation deck. But the Octantis is designed to stretch minds as well as legs. There are 18 expedition crew on board, including geologists, geophysicists and ornithologists.
As we mill around the lower decks, heading back from an excursion or off to dinner, the experts are on hand with their charts and specimens to explain what we’re seeing.
There are lectures in the evening and the emphasis is on learning. The Octantis is also a Polar Class 6 expedition ship. At water level, there is a science lab and the kind of hangar Q inhabits in James Bond movies. It houses millions of dollars’ worth of gear designed to measure the Lakes water, earth, air and biology.
There’s a Special Operations Boat equipped with a three-sector broadband multibeam echo sounder; the sonar maps the bottom of the Great Lakes in great detail. It’s more fun than it sounds, reaching terrific speeds as it bounds through the waves, and we amateur scientists hang on for dear life. The hangar is also where John lives. John is a yellow submarine. There are four others in the Viking fleet — Paul, George and Ringo.
One of the submarines that passengers and crew use to explore the depths of the lakes. ‘The scene underwater here in the heart of the Great Lakes is not exactly the Great Barrier Reef,’ writes Mark
‘It’s luxurious but in a Nordic way. Nothing show-offy,’ Mark says of Viking Octantis. The vessel is not huge by the standards of modern liners – it’s 665ft long with six decks and 189 staterooms
The eight-day voyage goes from Milwaukee to Thunder Bay and starts at £5,795 pp including flights from the UK. This includes meals, drinks, excursions, tips and lectures (viking.com).
The subs do important work investigating the 1,300ft-deep waters in Lake Superior. Guests get to be submariners for an hour in a much shallower part of Lake Huron.
We squeeze down a ladder and take our seats. It’s even more of a squeeze for the pilot, Aled, a strapping Welsh lad. His frame is huddled over what looks like a video-game control.
He equalises the pressure, activates the thrusters and we descend gently to the bottom. The scene underwater here in the heart of the Great Lakes is not exactly the Great Barrier Reef.
There’s some sediment, a clump or two of seagrass and some minnows flitting about. But, still, for the six of us on board, we have completed our first submarine dive and done our bit for science.
On the last day, we anchor at misty Silver Islet, go ashore and test our land legs. It’s a short cruise to Thunder Bay, where after dinner it’s still light. There’s one last chance to go on deck and drink in the Great Lakes palette: icy blue sky, a tangerine glow on the horizon, the setting sun gilding the decks.
I realise that, unlike other cruises, the water isn’t just the means to transfer you from place to place. These vast, mysterious expanses are the very reason to be here.